Where do new plant varieties come from?
They come to us in two ways. Some come from discoveries either in nature or in cultivated fields; others come by crossing different parents to get the desired offspring.
One company that is influential in helping introduce new varieties to the gardening world is Ball Seed, which recently celebrated its 100 anniversary.
Last season, I had a chance to tour the company's 7.5-acre trial and display gardens in West Chicago, Ill. For more than 70 years, these gardens have been the evaluation and testing grounds for the world's wealth of horticultural improvements and introductions.
Marketing director Bill Doeckel said the company's founder, George J. Ball, started by breeding cut flowers. He then started distributing the flowers' seeds — particularly in the New York City area. It was this distribution that eventually led to Ball Seed.
"After World War II, the plant market started to boom," Doeckel said. "We started getting into hybrids because they had many superior traits. Before that, almost all flower seeds were open pollinated. We also did work with many new plants, including taming the impatiens from the wilds of Costa Rica to the garden flower it is today."
While there are gardens that are larger and more spacious than Ball's, few have been so influential in helping introduce new varieties to the industry. Looking at the yearly planting plan shows a virtual who's who of plant varieties. Many plants featured in this column got their start in these gardens, as breeders determined their beauty, strength and pest resistance.
The gardens, which first started out as rows of plants in 1933, have progressively changed into display beds featuring more than 3,000 varieties of annual and perennial flowers and vegetables. These displays show commercial and home gardeners what the future holds.
Anna Caroline Ball, Ball chief executive offer, said Ball's trial and display gardens are an "exciting forum for sharing ideas on plants and planting with the thousands of growers, retailers, landscapers, garden writers and consumers who visit each year."
Ball's Garden Gateway displays many new varieties that are introduced each year. Some that caught my eye during my visit were Blazin' Rosa Iresine, Purple Baron Ornamental Millet, Easy Wave Petunias and Purple Knight Alternanthera.
Another exciting planting was Ball's Patio Garden, where hundreds of single variety, sun and shade planters were on display. The Comparison Garden, where plants are evaluated against one another, was another delightful stop.
While on the tour, we were reminded that these gardens are trial grounds, and as such, there are bound to be varieties that fail. And while it was strange to see failing plants in the gardens, the company must test all varieties to make certain that consumers aren't disappointed.
The geranium circle offered another exciting display, with more than 100 varieties of geraniums growing in containers. Almost any color, leaf pattern and plant form were on display.
Ball Seed is the originator of many of the All America Selections and is one of 35 AAS evaluation sites in the United States, meaning many of the varieties that are so popular with gardeners are first evaluated in here.
The company's hanging garden gave a whole new twist on gardening, with the Wave and Easy Wave Petunias trailing from their containers. The Creative Corner Garden was home to a dazzling mix of plants in the same container, and the Woodland Area included an exciting array of shade-loving annuals and perennials. Particularly impressive were the Kong and Wizard coleus, with rich displays of highly colored leaves. The Mona Lavender Plectranthus would be a delightful choice for any shade garden, and it was a perfect complement to the outstanding series of impatiens varieties Ball had on display. You can look for these series, including Dazzler, Fusion, Fanciful, Fanfare and Fiesta.
Larry Sagers is the horticulture specialist for Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.